HIFF Review: ‘Welcome to the Space Show’

Oct. 22, 2010 | 0 Comments

REVIEW BY JASON S. YADAO/jyadao@staradvertiser.com

If having a whimsical, imaginative spirit was all it took for a movie to win acclaim among critics and audiences, “Welcome to the Space Show” would have enough praise to fill … well, an entire galaxy, really.

Call it the “Spirited Away” complex. Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning work about a girl who ends up working at a bathhouse filled with Japanese spirits and mythical entities was filled with this spirit. It’s also what one would expect from a film structured like “Space Show”: The only five school-age children in a rural Japanese hamlet go to a summer camp; while looking for a lost rabbit, the youngest girl finds an injured dog; the dog, sufficiently nursed back to health, starts talking to them and ends up taking them into space with him as a token of his gratitude.

So we have innocent, wide-eyed children, a talking dog and a universe filled with aliens to which the character designers probably lavished a lot of attention. It’s a gorgeous film, one that you hope would get licensed and released stateside on Blu-ray so you can admire all of its bright candy-colored creatures and contraptions on lush high-definition displays. There are subtle clever touches as well — for instance, the dog’s name is Pochi (a name that is to the Japanese what “Fido” is to Americans), and he’s from the planet Bow (as in “bow wow”).

But whimsy is only as good as what you see before you pull back the curtain. And as “Welcome to the Space Show” — all two-plus hours of it — plays out with all of its wonderful worlds, from the sliding-door homes and rice paddies of rural Japan to the sleek, futuristic architecture of the colony on the dark side of the moon and beyond, the film’s problems quietly pile up behind that curtain, building to a point where you can no longer deny they exist.

See, there’s a flip side to filling a movie with a whimsical, imaginative spirit: There’s the distinct danger that, if left unchecked, the final product ends up feeling far too overambitious and bloated for its own good. By the time we’ve reached the middle of the film, the following key plot elements are in play:

» Natsuki — a rather energetic girl who dreams of being a superhero — and her cousin Amane are at odds because Natsuki lost the school’s rabbit.

» Koji, the space geek of the group, has befriended Ink, a cute alien with floppy ears that double as an extra set of hands, and her rocket-building father. It’s from this duo that Koji learns about Pet Star, a place apparently filled with treasures … and mysteries.

» Kiyoshi, the oldest of the group, struggles to be a sufficient leader, while Noriko, who aspires to be an star singer, struggles with her timidity.

» Pochi is alternately pleased and irritated with having to play universal tour guide for the kids.

» Everyone in the universe wants to get their hands on Zughaan, a plant species thought extinct for 5 billion years until Pochi discovered some growing on Earth. A gang of three misfit aliens, supervised by a fourth alien with a giant eye, is fighting with Pochi to get it. And Natsuki just happens to be toting around a bag of the stuff on her intergalactic field trip.

» The kids have to go home, but they can’t go STRAIGHT home because the most direct route has been sealed off to protect Zughaan … so they must go hundreds of light years away to (as luck would have it) the planet Bow.

» The Space Show, the universe’s greatest variety show and a pirate broadcast spanning galaxies, has won a devoted audience that drops everything to watch it.

Two or three of those elements might have made for a nice, trim movie. All of them at once? Not so much. If that’s not confusing enough, matters actually get MORE complicated before they start being resolved. And the resolutions are such that there are still a few lingering questions even after the final credits roll. (We never do get a satisfactory explanation for why Zughaan is so coveted, for example.)

David Cabrera, writing for Otaku USA magazine, noted that at “Welcome to the Space Show’s” screening at Otakon in Baltimore, an Aniplex representative told the audience to visit a post-screening panel to tell the staff how much they loved the movie. “Normally I’d call this hubris,” Cabrera wrote, “but after watching the trailer online I came into this movie fully expecting something I would go rave about afterwards. As things turned out, it was hubris after all. The film is a like, not a love.”

I want to love this movie, too. But somehow, with all of the problems sitting behind the curtain, I just can’t embrace it as much as I’d like.

‘Welcome to the Space Show’

Asian Showcase: Spotlight on Japan
Screens at 7:15 p.m. Saturday
Two and a half stars

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